For nine years, Anacostia Riverkeeper in Washington, D.C., has partnered with the Pope Branch Park Restoration Alliance to organize the Martin Luther King Jr. Day & Clean Waterways Cleanup. The event takes place at Pope Branch Park every Martin Luther King Jr. National Day of Service. On Jan. 16, 2023, a record 417 volunteers collected more than 9,600 pounds of debris from illegal dumping — nearly five tons in all. Budget Dumpster donated a 30 yard bin for the cleanup.

In just a few hours, volunteers collected, sorted and bagged everything from food packaging and glass bottles to scrap metal and car parts. The strangest item collected this year was a full-size basketball hoop and stand. The 2023 cleanup marked the 25th year of the event, which was started by Joseph Glover, founder of the Pope Branch Park Restoration Alliance.

Bags of Litter Stacked Near Dumpster
Image courtesy of Anacostia Riverkeeper

Keeping Trash Out of the Anacostia River

The Martin Luther King Jr. Day cleanup was one of the first in the city that Trey Sherard participated in after taking his first role with Anacostia Riverkeeper, specifically to start its volunteer cleanups program, Clean Waterways, in January 2012. The nonprofit works to recruit boots-on-the-ground volunteers for the cleanup and other events throughout the year. Sherard loves how community-driven the Martin Luther King Jr. Day cleanup is.

“We invite a lot of people in,” Sherard says. “But it’s actually for the community and by the community, and that’s important for our work.”

Picking up litter in the park is key to keeping the Anacostia River clean. Whatever trash falls into the creek that flows through the park ends up in the river. In 2023, baggable litter accounted for 5,478 pounds of the collected debris, including 1,795 pounds of glass bottles and 661 pounds of miscellaneous food and drink packaging, Sherard reports. Single-use plastic bottles weighed in at 390 pounds.

“Plastic bottles are 60% of the weight of the trash floating on the river at any given time.”

Trey Sherard | Anacostia Riverkeeper

To address the large number of plastic bottles collected, Anacostia Riverkeeper is working with Washington, D.C., and Maryland on a redemption program so people can earn money for turning in bottles. He believes that would reduce plastic bottle waste significantly.

Anacostia Riverkeeper participates in 10 to 20 cleanups annually. Along with cleaning up the city’s greenspaces, the events serve to reconnect residents to the Anacostia River, Sherard says.

“Our mission is to restore and protect the Anacostia River and advocate for a healthy river for all of its communities,” he says. “There’s a big disconnect with the people and the river. But that’s been getting a lot better the last few years.”

Trey Sherard | Anacostia Riverkeeper
Volunteers Pick Up Litter Along a Street
Image courtesy of Anacostia Riverkeeper

Restoring Pope Branch Park

In the winter of 1997, Dolly Davis moved to Washington D.C. from Takoma Park, Maryland. After the snow thawed, she looked at the railroad tracks across the street from her Ward 7 home near the northern portion of the Anacostia River and saw trash. Lots of it.

The tracks were discontinued in 2002 — an “open invitation for dumping,” says Davis, president and executive coordinator of the Pope Branch Park Restoration Alliance. Over the years, the greenspace has become a “hot spot” for illegal dumping. Aside from typical trash, she has seen burned out vehicles, scrap metal and assorted items from eviction cleanouts: tables, chairs, mattresses, box springs, toys and household appliances.

“We get dumped on all the time. We have communities all over Ward 7 who get dumped on just as much as we do. We’re near I-295, which runs north and south. So people just dump and roll out.”

Dolly Davis | Pope Branch Park Restoration Alliance

The 1.2-mile park goes through four different neighborhoods and residential backyards in the predominantly Black community, she says. After several attempts to get local government involved didn’t work, Davis took matters into her own hands. She connected with local activist Joseph Glover and joined the Pope Branch Restoration Alliance, which Glover started some 40+ years ago. Through their efforts in organizing grassroots cleanup efforts in the area and contacting city departments, things started to change slowly.

From 2000 to 2020, city personnel worked to investigate illegal dumping, impose fines and make arrests. They gathered environmental groups to meet regularly to help combat blight and learn about river initiatives, and be recognized for years of work completed. Residents can help by purchasing home-installed cameras to aid in the surveillance, calling the 311 customer service line to report illegal dumping, recycling household trash and participating in local cleanups and beautification projects. Each year, the alliance hosts two big cleanups on MLK Jr. Day and on Earth Day in April with residents and other nonprofits, including Anacostia Riverkeeper, Anacostia Watershed Society, Clean Water Network, the Sierra Club and the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, among others.

In the spring of 2016, the city commenced restoration of the park, including tree plantings and creating a more habitable wetland for birds and other wildlife, Davis says. It’s something that Glover championed for over 40 years until his death in 2010. Today, plans are being made for early education and elementary schools to take students on eco-tours in the park as a “living classroom,” she says.

To this day, Davis continues to work toward the full restoration of the park which includes a raised walkway to view wetland plants and animals including fish, eel and frogs. Her vision is to see the rail line replaced with a hiking and bike trail to connect to other trails throughout D.C., Maryland and Virginia. Giving back to the community is something Glover was passionate about, Davis says, and she looks to continue that legacy of service.

“We do this in remembrance of the work Martin Luther King Jr. has done. I do the work in remembrance of what Mr. Glover has done. It is right to give back to your community. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel. I know it. It’s coming.”

Dolly Davis | Pope Branch Park Restoration Alliance

Working Toward a Plastic-Free Cleanup

Volunteer Carries Bags of Trash
Image courtesy of Anacostia Riverkeeper

During the MLK Jr. Day Cleanup, Anacostia Riverkeeper’s Sherard counts on each volunteer filling one to three 33-gallon plastic garbage bags with debris. This year was no different. Even by reusing the bags, volunteers went through 800 to 900 trash bags.

But having a roll off dumpster on-site will likely change that, Sherard says. Budget Dumpster donated a 30 yard roll off dumpster for the event, which volunteers had filled in an hour and a half. Nonprofit organizations can contact Budget Dumpster to apply for a free roll off dumpster for an event in their area.

“It hurts my feelings a little bit to buy plastic to go pick-up trash that’s mostly plastic. Having a dumpster allows us to at least dump things from the bags and reuse them. Ideally, we can start using other containers than a plastic trash bag that people can put things in as they walk around.”

Trey Sherard | Anacostia Riverkeeper

Doing so will ensure there’s less plastic going into a landfill, he says. In years past, the nonprofit has tried compostable bags, but they are prone to ripping despite the material getting better. Other volunteers have tried using mesh bags, buckets and bins to carry debris, but the organization is still looking for better options.

Organize a Cleanup in Your Community

The Martin Luther King Jr. Day & Clean Waterways Cleanup is just one example of the impact residents and environmental groups can have on their community — from short-term cleanups to long-term efforts. Want to organize a community cleanup where you live? Use the guides below to get started and apply for a dumpster donation for your nonprofit.